So in the verbose email style it seems so ingrained in the culture of Microsoft, Satya Nadella has announced a new mission statement for the Redmond behemoth – to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more.

A really great mission statement, to my mind, combines four key attributes: aspiration, specificity and tangibility, combined with the ultimately unachieveable. My favourite mission statement of all time (yes, I am sad enough to have such a thing) is the UK Maritime & Coastguard Agency’s Safer Lives, Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas.

It’s aspirational – it’s all about making things (and important things) better; it’s specific – the mission is something that could only really come from the MCA; and it’s tangible – safer lives, safer ships and cleaner seas are all things that can be measured and tracked for improvement. Most importantly, though, there’s no end-date, no final state when one could say “right, done that”.

The most famous of Microsoft’s missions past – A computer on every desk and in every home – was pretty good. When it was first coined, it was extremely aspirational, very much specific to the industry in which Microsoft was operating, and extremely tangible. Back in the early days of personal computing, it probably also seemed like it was ultimately unachieveable to many; it’s easy to think today that the job has been done, but that would be an extremely developed-world-centric perspective. Of course the challenge for Microsoft is that it is a bit-part player in the new era of mobile computing that is most likely to actually achieve that original vision.

The trouble with Microsoft’s new mission is that it’s neither specific nor tangible: “empowering people to achieve more” is something that many organisations could adopt as a ersatz mission – it could be a bank, it could be an accounting firm, it could be a manufacturer of cleaning products; “empowering to achieve more” is flim-flam – it’s not saying that people will actually achieve more, and more what anyway? It’s the sort of wordage that Nadella seems to wrap himself in that at first seems wise yet becomes meaningless with the simplest analysis. “Mobile first, Cloud first”, Microsoft’s “worldview” is nonsense – “Mobile joint-first, Cloud joint-first” is I assume what is meant, but scans terribly. It might sound like “5 items or less”-type pedantry, but words are important and if they are meaningless, then…

Well, that for me brings home the bigger issue that these business-speak riddles highlight. What exactly is the point of Microsoft these days?

They’ve undoubtedly done a great PR job since Steve Ballmer’s departure, but it doesn’t really address the triple challenge that the organisation faces: Windows is no longer the dominant personal computing operating system; Cloud dramatically undermines the server licencing business model that underpins much of the traditional enterprise market; and collaboration tool based around tools that were designed in the world of paper just don’t cut it any more.

Within all of this, primarily what is Microsoft for? It’s there to make money for it’s shareholders. And whilst that might seem like an obvious statement, I’d argue that companies go through a maturing process where initially they are there to create new markets or products that have the side effect of making money for investors, but then many move to a point where making returns becomes their primary purpose. These organisations don’t experience hyper-growth – they’re the steady bankers in portfolios (or at least have been in the past). They ebb and flow in terms of success, sometimes disappearing altogether in acts of bankruptcy or M&A. Microsoft is now at that stage, but it still thinks of itself as a startup. But a startup that doesn’t have really much clear vision of what they are doing.

Imagine Nadella in front of the Dragons in Dragons’ Den. He’d give his pitch

Our strategy is to build best-in-class platforms and productivity services for a mobile-first, cloud-first world. Our platforms will harmonize the interests of end users, developers and IT better than any competing ecosystem or platform.

Now imagine the Dragons’ responses…

“So, what is it that you actually do?”

And for me that’s the big challenge that Microsoft still has to face – what, as a maturing organisation, does it actually do? And can it express that in a way that unites its staff but, much more importantly, its customers and prospects?

One thought on “Mission to nowhere?

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